Dean strategy converts skeptics

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Mr. Dean’s chairmanship has had its critics.

In the 2006 midterm elections, Illinois Rep. Rahm Emanuel, who chaired the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, criticized the party chairman for pouring money into die-hard Republican states, arguing that some of that money could better be used to tip close House races into the Democratic column. Mr. Emanuel eventually got an additional $5 million from the DNC, and the Democrats picked up 31 House seats and took control of the chamber for the first time since 1994.

Democratic strategist Lanny Davis, a former adviser to President Clinton, said Mr. Dean deserves “a great deal of credit” for his party-rebuilding plan but also criticism for the way he dealt with the party’s internal battles over this year’s primary schedule and delegate controversies.

“The big minus is his failure to show leadership in the party’s dispute over the Michigan and Florida primaries” that violated party scheduling rules, forcing the DNC to strip them of their convention delegates, Mr. Davis said.

The fight over the two delegations led to major tensions between Mr. Obama and rival Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York.

“There was an opportunity to fix that by having a revote, but [Mr. Dean] was very inflexible. It was a failure of leadership that disappointed me. He’s supposed to be a political leader and seek out solutions,” Mr. Davis said. “The irony is that Obama has asked that both delegations be fully seated.”

Still, there is far more praise among the party’s rank-and-file for Mr. Dean’s tenure than there is criticism.

“His forward thinking on strategy is what got us into the position where we are going to contest all 50 states. This was a tremendous investment in capital, and there was a lot of push-back from people who thought the DNC couldn’t afford to do that,” said Brian Melendez, the Minnesota Democratic Party chairman.

When Mr. Dean took office in 2005, he was shocked to learn that most state parties didn’t even have a media director to hone their party’s message. “We now fund about 30 state communications directors because the state parties previously didn’t have one,” a senior DNC official said.

A comprehensive review of the party ordered by the new chairman concluded that “we needed to expand the electoral map, build infrastructure, improve access to and the reporting of voter information, plan ahead and have trained staff on the ground early [and] modernize communication,” according to a DNC “How We’ll Win” memorandum put out earlier this year.

“We start with 183 reliably Democratic [electoral] votes so we need to expand the Democratic playing field to get to the magic number of 270 votes,” the memo said. That led to the creation of the State Party Partnership Program, otherwise known as the 50-state strategy.

Mr. Dean also created a state-of-the-art national voter file and an in-house “microtargeting” technology that identifies each voter’s specific concerns to help refine outreach appeals - tools that already had been used effectively by Republicans.

“We’ve taken a page out of the Republican playbook in a lot of ways,” said a senior DNC adviser.

While Mr. Dean’s 50-state strategy - and the Obama campaign’s efforts to contest many more red states - have put a number of previously Republican states in play, some top election analysts think most targeted states will remain in Republican hands.

Veteran election tracker Charlie Cook still puts nearly a dozen of the Democrats’ targeted states in the “likely” or “leaning” Republican column, including North and South Dakota, Montana, Georgia, Indiana, Virginia, North Carolina, Florida, Missouri and Arkansas.

About the Author
Donald Lambro

Donald Lambro

Donald Lambro is the chief political correspondent for The Washington Times, the author of five books and a nationally syndicated columnist. His twice-weekly United Feature Syndicate column appears in newspapers across the country, including The Washington Times. He received the Warren Brookes Award For Excellence In Journalism in 1995 and in that same year was the host and co-writer of ...

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